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Happy Halloween! Here at Ferrebeekeeper we continue working through a list of snake monsters from around the world.  Today’s monster is from South African lore—but it is a little unclear what tradition it hales from.  Maybe, as in the case of, say, Bigfoot, the legends of indigenous people got mashed together with the aspirations and fears of European explorers, miners, and settlers to create an unsettling hybrid being…At any rate, this creature, the Grootslang, is said to be a colossal hybrid of an elephant and a serpent left over from the primordial building of the world.  The gods created a creature of enormous size, colossal intellect, dark cunning, and insatiable greed…oh and bendiness.  Grootslangs were soon destroying the newly created world, and the gods realized they had made a terrible mistake.  They separated the beings into different categories, giving size & intellect to the great elephants and supple cunning and greed to snakes.

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Yet some (or one?) Grootslang escaped and lived on to trouble humankind.  Myths assert that the Grootslang was even more avaricious, parsimonious, and cunning than diamond prospectors and Dutch colonial merchants (so obviously the stories are fake).  The Grootslang    is said to live in a cave filled with infinite diamonds somewhere in the Richtersveld of South Africa.  It is enormously wealthy and delights in cruelly torturing unwary prospectors to death, however its greed is it weakness and victims can prolong their life by offering it treasure and deals.  Alas, the Grootslang kept not just the cruelty strength and wealth of the ancient gods it also had their unearthly acumen and cunning, so deals made with it tended to go horribly wrong, in the manner of dragon curses from medieval tales.  So, if you run into the Grootslang you can potentially save yourself by offering it diamonds, but probably everything will come apart and you will be in a worse situation than you were originally.

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Hmm, maybe this thing is actually a metaphor for DeBeers…

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Ok, a while back Ferrebeekeeper poked some fun at the royal crown of Holland.  Thriftiness is a famous national characteristic of the Dutch and the coronation crown, made of fish paste and thinly gilded metal certainly encapsulates that dubious virtue. However, the Dutch had a globe spanning empire for a long time and do they have some exceedingly nice things.  Here is the Dutch Sapphire tiara, an 1881 love gift from King Willem III of the Netherlands to his wife, Queen Emma.  The magnificent tiara features 33 blue sapphires and 655 diamonds set in platinum.  The shape is meant to evoke the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but the workmanship is the finest the 19th century had to offer. A number of the stones are mounted “en tremblant”, which means they are attached to subtle springs which vibrate slightly with movement causing them to scintillate and glisten even more dazzlingly!

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Here it is being worn by Queen Maxima of Holland.  Maxima is a great name for a queen!

Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

It has been too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic-themed post…and we are still quite a ways from autumn, the spooky season when creepy beautiful imagery seems most appropriate.  To whet you interest for more complicated Gothic posts which are coming up (and to fulfil your need for beautiful art and architecture) here is a very beautiful painting of a cathedral by the brilliant Dutch architectural painter, Pieter Cornelis Dommersen (1833–1918) .  Dommersen’s art has fallen from fashion because of its fussy obsessiveness with detail and his anachronistic historical landscapes (which already seemed old-fashioned when he was painting them more than a century ago), but, to my eye there is a beautiful harmony of color and form in his works which make the little cityscapes come to life with unique power and vividness.  In this work the tiny burghers and worthies beneath the spires and gables of this German-looking medieval town seem to be made of the same cobbles, plaster, and masonry as their town. The entire brown and gray milieu teeters at the edge of being a Thomas Kincaid-type work of kitsch, yet somehow the way the Gothic buildings lean towards each other and beckon the viewer into the oddly familiar alleys transcends the merely picturesque realm of postcard art.  There is a real beauty and meaning in Dommersen’s art, but it is subtle and urbane.

A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

Carel Fabritius (1622 – 12 October 1654) was the most gifted and innovative of Rembrandt’s many pupils. He alone escaped from the master’s shadow by reversing his teacher’s signature style: whereas Rembrandt was known for showing a brightly lit subject against a background of darkness, Fabritius painted dark subjects on a bright background. He certainly had a measure Rembrandt’s masterful humanism (as is evidenced by the soulful self-portrait above). In the early 1650s, Fabritius moved to Delft where a revolution in optics was underway. Based on the below painting “A View of Delft” painted in 1652, Fabritius was an early experimenter with lenses and optics in the visual arts. It is believed he taught Vermeer (who also used lenses to create special effects in his masterworks) and thus was an integral link between the two great 17th century Dutch masters.

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

Indeed Fabritius would likely be one of the most famous luminaries of world art with renown commensurate to Rembrandt & Vermeer except for a tragic and bizarre accident. On October 12, 1654–360 years ago yesterday–Cornelis Soetens opened the door of a gunpowder magazine located in a repurposed Clarissen convent (Soetens was the official keeper of said powder chamber). It is unclear what exactly went wrong but all 66,138 pounds of gunpowder ignited and combusted. The resultant explosion destroyed much of Delft. Fabritius was caught in the explosion and sustained mortal wound. As an added injury, the explosion destroyed Fabritius’ studio along with the majority of his life’s work. Only twelve known paintings remain—but they are very good paintings!

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The carrot (Daucus carota sativus) has been in cultivation at least since classical antiquity (although Roman sources sometimes seemingly confuse the root vegetable with its close cousin, the parsnip). However don’t imagine toga-clad Romans walking around the Forum chewing on bright orange carrots like Bugs Bunny! In Classical antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, carrots were purple or white. It was not until the 16th century that far-sighted Dutch farmers stumbled upon a mutant orange carrot and hybridized it with other varieties to begin the now-familiar tradition of all orange carrots. It is said that the orange carrots were chosen not just for their patriotic Netherlandish color (the princely Dutch House of Orange was leading a revolt against the Spanish) but also because they were sweeter and milder than the ancient white and purple cultivars.

 

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

Apparently all humans (with our tastes skewed toward a primate color palate) like the color orange better. Despite the fact that other colors of the tasty root dominated the market for two thousand years, orange carrots have now thoroughly supplanted the old varieties. Even in diverse New York, you would have to go to an esoteric farmer’s market or a specialty shop like Dean & Deluca to maybe dredge up some purple carrots. However seed catalogs still sell them–so if you want to eat like a healthy Roman grandee (assuming grandees even ate carrots), you can always grow your own.  Additionally, it looks like health food aficionados have become convinced that purple carrots contain anti-oxidants, so maybe the color pendulum is about to swing back the other direction…

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Flower Still Life with Tulips and Roses (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,, oil on copper)

Flower Still Life with Tulips and Roses (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,, oil on copper)

Besotted with the beauty of spring, I am dedicating this week of Ferrebeekeeper to flowers and floral-themed posts (in retrospect I should have saved last week’s aquilegia post for this week—but consider that a teaser). To start this week’s flower celebration, we are returning to the Dutch Golden Age of painting to look at the life and works of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621). Bosschaert was one of the artists whose work initiated the Dutch mania for still life paintings and for fancy flowers (he lived through the tulip mania and may have helped precipitate that economic bubble). He also founded a family dynasty of artists which endured throughout the 17th century—which is why he is styled “Bosschaert the Elder” (though I am just going to call him Bosschaert).

Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Bosschaert was born in Antwerp, but to avoid religious persecution, he moved to Middleburg where he spent most of his life painting with his equally famous and important brother-in-law Balthasar van der Ast. Bosschaert favored symmetrical bouquets of April-May flowers (mainly roses and extragent tulips) which he painted on copper—a surface which allows artists to paint in exacting detail. Unlike van der Ast, Bosschaert did not obsess over multitudinous insects, mollusks, and other crawly animals with symbolic meanings (although are usually a few dragonflies, cone snail shells, or moths at the edges of his paintings). Instead he concentrated on the pure formal beauty of flowers. Bosschaert concentrated on the lambent translucent beauty of an unfurling rose or the perfectly harmonized stripes of newly hybridized tulips. There are irises, poppies, and ranunculuses in supporting roles with their own elegance, but tulips and roses nearly always take a starring role.

Flower Still Life (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Flower Still Life (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Bosschaert was extremely popular and his works commanded top dollar…er guilder, but there are fewer than collectors and museums would like since he also worked as an art dealer. The paintings we have from him, however are magnificent. Even after all of the intervening centuries of decorative art, Bosschaert’s work has an unrivaled power to call attention to the pure mesmerizing beauty of flowers in carefully organized bouquets.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg

Yesterday I cooked a savory chicken pie using an ancient recipe and it came out really well.  Although it has carrots, cream, mushroom, potato, boiled chicken, caramelized onion, and peas, the dominant taste is a subtle flavor which is simultaneously sweet, medicinal, and delicately evocative of some eastern paradise.  The secret ingredient is one of the strangest and most important commodities in human history—nutmeg, the ground nut from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans.

A nutmeg fruit

A nutmeg fruit

In the middle ages, nutmeg was a rare and precious ingredient.  Only a small cadre of Muslim traders knew where the spice was actually from and, after laboriously carrying it across or around the Indian Ocean, they sold it to the Venetians for substantial sums (whereupon the Venetians sold it to everyone else for exorbitant sums).  The European age of exploration was ostensibly launched in order to find the mysterious “Spice Islands” where nutmeg was from (a pursuit which had long ranging side effects, such as the European rediscovery of the Americas and the rush towards global colonial empires).

The Banda Islands

The Banda Islands

Even though the search for nutmeg kicked off an age of exploration, it was not until 1512 that the Spanish finally discovered where all the world’s nutmeg was coming from: the Banda Islands located East of Sulawesi in the middle of the Banda Sea. The Islands were thereafter contested by traders until the Dutch gained an upper hand in the 17th century.  The Dutch used this monopoly to bolster  their brief ascendancy to global superpower.  During the height of Dutch power, nutmeg was taken to Holland and stored in a giant warehouse in order to keep the price artificially high.

17th Century Amsterdam

17th Century Amsterdam

As the English began to command mastery of the seas, they inevitably fought the Dutch for control of world trade.  The Second Dutch-English war, a battle for global maritime supremacy, was fought in the Caribbean, the North Sea, at the mouth of the Thames (and, on all the oceans of the world, via privateering).  The war was fought over the global trade in slaves, fur, tobacco, and, above all, spices.  Although English privateers scored initial successes, the war became a disaster for the English when the Dutch raided their home port of Medway at the mouth of the Thames and burned their war fleet (an event which is still regarded as the worst disaster in the history of the English navy).

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

In the treaty of Breda, which ended the war, the English received the colony of New Amsterdam—thereafter named New York, whereas the Dutch claimed the greatest prize: exclusive control of the Banda Islands (and the sugar plantations of Suriname).  Thereafter the Dutch crushed hints of sedition on the Banda Islands by means of brutal executions and they led war raids on nearby territories to extirpate any nutmeg trees which had been grown or transplanted elsewhere in Indonesia.

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

During the Napoleonic Wars, the English used their naval supremacy to take over the Banda Islands and break the Dutch monopoly.  They exported trees to numerous tropical colonies (which is why Kerala and Granada are now famous for nutmeg production).  Colonial America was hardly exempt from the nutmeg craze, but because of colonial antagonisms, nutmeg was not always available at affordable prices.  The state of Connecticut became famous for unscrupulous tradesmen who would carve nutmeg seeds out of similarly colored wood and thereby earned its nickname “The Nutmeg State” (i.e. a haven for fraud) which seems appropriate given the number of wealthy financiers who live there.

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

So much for the history of nutmeg production and distribution—what about the demand? What was the reason for all of this desperate search and strife? Nutmeg was popular as a spice and tonic since ancient times when it was used by Greeks and Romans (if they could get it). During the era after the crusades it became de rigueur among aristocrats and its status only grew during the age of exploration. Wealthy gentlemen would carry nutmeg grinders on them, and hand grind nutmeg into alcoholic punches and hot drinks.  Nutmeg was baked into the fanciest pastries, pies, and cakes.  The red avril covering the nutmeg seed was ground into a separate spice named mace which is used in more delicate dishes.  As well as being used in desserts and drinks, nutmeg was used in Indian curries, eastern medicine, and at the apothecary. The fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans held a druglike sway over the wealthy classes around the globe.

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It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a powerful psychoactive substance which acts as a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).  MAOIs prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, a mysterious class of neurotransmitters which play an unknown but critical role in emotion, arousal, and cognition (indeed pharmaceutical MAOIs are one of the more useful classes of antidepressants).  In tiny doses myristicin is harmless or tonic to humans (although even in small doses it is deadly to many animals including some of our best beloved domestic friends) yet upping the dosage quickly causes nausea, seizures, splitting headaches and powerful weird hallucinations.  Every generation, the press rediscovers nutmeg as a drug and creates a moral panic, although all but the most reckless drug users are put off by nutmeg’s bitter taste in large doses—or by the ghastly descriptions of nutmeg’s physical effects.

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Indeed, the modern world has found more potent flavors (and better psychoactive powders).  Nutmeg has been relegated to grandma’s spice rack and it really only comes out during the holidays as a critical flavor in eggnog, pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and gingerbread.  This is a shame because, in small quantities nutmeg is delicious in savory dishes (like my pot pie and my favorite lasagna).  The flavor has a strange power—an intoxicating deliciousness which invades the brain and gives nutmeg dishes an irresistible quality. Believe me, because as I finish writing this, I am also finishing off that addictive pot pie (and I believe I am also starting to feel more chipper)…

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

Flowers on a Tree Trunk (Rachel Ruysch,

Flowers on a Tree Trunk (Rachel Ruysch, ca. first half of 18th century)

Every once in a while, things go right for artists: Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) lived a long prosperous life and found international success as a still life painter in an era when there were few women in the arts.  Her father, Frederik Ruysch, was a famous professor of anatomy and botany who was renowned for his highly informative yet artistic anatomy displays (somewhat in the manner of famous contemporary body displays by the anatomist Gunther von Hagens).  Professor Ruysch built strange and delicate landscapes out of preserved human organs and dissected bodies—particularly those of infants. He was renowned for his skill with various preservative regents and his secret liquor balsamicum was one of the wonders of the day—as were the novel human specimens he preserved within this embalming fluid. Rachel was expected to help by creating lace for the pieces and then arranging the bodies, limbs, appendages, and organs in an artistic fashion along with seashells and flowers (you’ll have to look that stuff up on your own, because it is the stuff of nightmares).

Because she worked closely with her father, interacted with famous artists of Holland’s golden age, and drew and organized the objects in her family’s famous curiosity cabinet, Rachel was well positioned to launch her own art career.  She usually painted in the “dark background” still life style of de Heem and Willem Kalf, however many of her works demonstrated her background in the natural sciences.  For example in “Flowers on a Tree Trunk” she boldly moves her composition from the parlor to the forest.  A highly artificial flower bouquet of cabbage-roses, lilies, and irises dominates the composition—however, since this flower arrangement is located on the ground floor of a forest, the meaning is extremely different from more conventional vase paintings.  Surrounded by wild creatures the bouquet invites the viewer to contrast the artificial beauty of flower arranging (or indeed of cultivated flowers themselves) with the chaotic beauty of a wild ecosystem of snakes, lizards, snails and butterflies.

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch (Godfried Schalcken, ca. 1706)

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch (Godfried Schalcken, ca. 1706)

Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman, 2013 18 x 15 x 16 meters Inflatable, pontoon and generator)

Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman, 2013
18 x 15 x 16 meters,  Inflatable, pontoon and generator)

I’m sorry to post two duck posts in a row, but events in the art world (and beyond) necessitate such a step.  On September 27th (2013), Pittsburgh , PA became the first U.S. city to host Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant floating rubber duck statue.  Actually the rubber duck now in Pittsburgh is only one of several giant ducks designed by Hofman for his worldwide show “Spreading Joy Around the World,” which launched in his native Amsterdam.  The largest of the ducks, which measured 26×20×32 metres (85×66×105 ft) and weighed over 600 kg (1,300 lb) was launched in Saint Nazaire in Western France.

Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman,  2013 26 x 20 x 32 meters Inflatable, pontoon and generators)

Rubber Duck “Kaohsiung” (Florentijn Hofman, 2013
26 x 20 x 32 meters, Inflatable, pontoon and generators)

Hofman’s statues are meant to be fun and playful.  His website describes the purpose of the giant duck project simply, “The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.”

Feestaardvarken (Florentijn Hofman, 2013, Metal, concrete and coating)

Feestaardvarken (Florentijn Hofman, 2013, Metal, concrete and coating)

A list of his sculptural projects reveals that he has the generous and delighted soul of a toymaker.  A few example are instructive:  he erected a large plywood statue of a discarded plush rabbit named “Sunbathing Hare” in St. Petersburg, a concrete “party aardvark” in Arnhem (Holland), 2 immense slugs made of discarded shopping bags in France (they are crawling up a hill towards a towering gothic church and their inevitable death), and many other playful animal theme pieces.

Slow Slugs (Florentijn Hofman, 2012, Metal, football nets, and 40.000 plastic bags)

Slow Slugs (Florentijn Hofman, 2012, Metal, football nets, and 40.000 plastic bags)

Not only do Hofman’s works address fundamental Ferrebeekeeper themes like mollusks, art, mammals, and waterfowl, his work hints at the global nature of trade, and human cultural taste in our times. With his industrially crafted giant sculptures and his emphasis on ports around the world, Hofman’s huge toys speak directly to humankind’s delight with inexpensive mass-market products.  The art also provokes a frisson of horror at the oppressive gigantism of even our most frivolous pursuits).

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Happy 407th birthday to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn!  The master’s peerless paintings and etchings show a unique understanding and empathy for the human condition.  Rembrandt painted faces more expressively than any other artist–because of this strength, his works attain deep emotional complexity.   To illustrate this, and to celebrate his birth, here is a masterpiece by Rembrandt which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid.  The painting is magnificent!  A pensive noblewoman (modeled by Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia) in resplendent jewels and silks takes a nautilus cup from a little page.  Behind her stands a strange gray figure, half-visible in the gloom—an apparition? a servant? The painter himself?  It is unclear.  The painting itself is a mystery which has been discussed an argued about for centuries.

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Rembrandt painted the work in 1634 (which we can see from his prominent signature and his inimitable style), but, uncharacteristically we do not know the title.  The painting is either “Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes” or “Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup.”  If the first title is correct, then the nautilus cup which is dramatic focus of the painting contains the ashes of Queen Artemisia’s husband/brother, Mausolus, satrap of Persia.  Mausolus’ immense tomb (constructed by Artemisia) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and gave us the word “mausoleum”.  Yet the great tomb was empty:  Artemisia had Mausolus’ ashes mixed into wine which she drank day after day until she had completely consumed his remains (the Greeks were fascinated by the fact that Artemisia was simultaneously the sister and wife and devourer of Mausolus).

However, if the second title is correct, then the seashell cup contains deadly poison.  Sophonisba was the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Gisco.  Upon his defeat, she took poison so as not to endure the humiliation of being part of a Roman triumph.   Nautilus shells allegedly had the magical power to negate poison (safety tip: this is not true at all).  That Sophonisba would commit suicide with such a cup indicates the true moral of the painting: the real poison is defeat and slavery.  Poison and a proud death are her antidotes.

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So which answer is right?  Or are they both wrong?  Saskia’s strange diffident anxiety could be fitting for either story, yet her manner and dress are not those of a grieving Persian sister-queen.   I favor the interpretation of the painting as that of the stoic Sophonisba.  These are her last moments and the gray figure is as much an inhabitant of the underworld as a flesh-and-blood attendant.  The strange whimsical garb is the fantasy raiment of vanished Carthage. But I could well be wrong. What do you think?

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